These tips, especially for beginners and intermediate forwards, are the important skills to master as they rise up through the ranks to high school and college level hockey. While some of these tips may seem obvious, it can take many years of practice to perform most of these automatically in the pressure of a game. This automatic action, is what coaches teach and help players continuously work on in their training programmes.
1. Know your job
It’s vital to know your position and what your role is in all three zones (defence, neutral and offensive) at all times. At a rec level stage of play, don’t try and do a teammates job, otherwise you’ll fail at your own. If your team does expect you to ‘cover’ other team mates positions, make sure you talk to them, so you know what your job is when that happens.
2. Backcheck – and backcheck hard
Backcheck at full speed until you have someone covered in your defensive zone. Backchecking at full speed is simply complimenting when you attack at full speed. Don’t be a one direction player, your team mates will notice and your game will suffer.
3. Choose who to backcheck
When you backcheck, look – see who is the most open and likely target for the puck carrier (who your Defence should be covering by now) to pass to. If the puck is on your side of the ice, it may be worth going after them and pressuring them, along with your defenseman or centre / forward – however, don’t leave a pass back to their defensemen on the point open – don’t come down too deep. Your job (tip 1), in your defensive zone as a forward, is to cover the oppositions defenseman on the blue line. Remember, a pass from the puck carrier in your defensive zone to an open opposition player is the most dangerous play – cover it.
4. Play hard
We all see them, players that glide from blue line to blue line – or those players that give up too quickly. Put out honest effort on each and every shift. Maximum effort and short shifts gets the most results in hockey – as well as the respect of your teammates.
5. Dump the puck if you or your line-mates are tired
An exhausted line is the most vulnerable, that’s when a dangerous turn-over happens and you can’t back-check in time. If you’re in your own defensive zone and being pressured and feel exhausted, dump the puck out for an icing. Take the easy and the safe play. It’s always desirable to take the whistle, change line-mates and defend your zone with fresh legs, than be unable to pressure the puck carrier or open offensive players, or then be unable to break-out effectively.
6. If in doubt, always attack with the puck
Don’t make it easy for the opposing team to catch you from behind. Always attack hard. A pressured driving attack on goal is much harder for a defenseman to cover and defend against.
Skating with the puck up the ice is always the slowest, and most energy inefficient and easiest to read play. Pass. Pass early to players that ahead of you, it will cause defensemen to shift position, and possibly get them out of position – but don’t pass to covered players and risk a turn over, if you’re not covered and pressured, carry the puck, if you have a team-mate that’s open, pass.
Get into the habit of shooting when you’re in the slot (the triangle between the goal and the top of each of the circles), unless an obvious and open pass is available. It is seldom productive to stickhandle further once in the slot unless to gain a better angle on the goaltender or let linemates move in for the rebound. Extra passes look good, but often take away any scoring chances and increase the risk of a turn-over. The key offensive strategy at rec-level hockey is to get shots on goal, to pressure the offensive team and to pickup the possibility of a rebound.
9. Choose the accurate shot
Take a wrist or snap shot from the slot, it’s the most accurate shot in your arsenal, slap-shots provide neither accuracy nor quickness and give the goal-tender or defensemen more time to react.
10. Know how to attack the net
If your team-mate has the puck behind the goal line, or in the corner, move away from the net. If your defensemen on the point has the puck, then move towards the net.
Move out when the puck is inside and move in when the puck is outside
The tendency is to move up close to the net when a team mate has the puck in the corner, or behind the net. However, up close to the net is where the most coverage is, and where the most congestion is. A high slot position for a player will result in more time for you to receive a pass for a quick shot on goal or a pass back to your defensemen for an alternative play.
If your defensemen on the oppositions blue line has the puck and is in a shooting position, moving to the net creates the best opportunity for screening the goal-tender, and puts players close for rebounds. Different coaches like different plays, but this basic concept is important.
11. Watch for the off-side when attacking
It may sound obvious, but it’s easy to go off-side when you’re on the rush and in an advantageous position (2 on 1, 3 on 2 etc). It’s best to be slightly conservative in these situations as they’re the best scoring chances and you don’t want to ruin that opportunity by going over the blue line early.
12. Dump to the opposite corner
If you can, dump / shoot the puck into the opposite corner (cross ice), it will come off the boards at a different angle, making it more difficult for a goal-tender or defenseman to defend or pick up. Winging it round the boards makes it easy for the goal-tender to pick it up behind the net, or a defenseman to trap it to then provide an easy feed for a break-out opportunity from them.
13. Don’t tie up when short-handed
Don’t tie up with an opposing player when your team is shorthanded. The odds of scoring get better as fewer players are involved in a power-play situation (i.e., 4-on-3 is better that 5-on-4). If you take out the pass from the player, it forces them to either drive the net themselves, or to shoot early, making it easier to defend against.
14. Don’t retaliate
You’ve just been slashed, tripped or cross-checked into the boards. However tempting it is to get a retaliatory hit in, referees and linemen can often miss the initial offence and at the very least, will call you on yours – forcing your team to defend short-handed – when has an official ever changed their minds when you’ve complained to them or tried to explain what happened? An important part of the forwards job is to take the check, and keep playing – retaliate by pressurizing on a break-out or rush into their zone, rather than a cheap hit which will disadvantage you and your team-mates.
15. Communicate with YOUR team
Communicate with your team-mates and line-mates, talk to them about plays, shout if you’re open – it’s all a crucial part of teamwork. Don’t, however, negatively communicate with opposing players, it’s seldom of value and exposes your emotions.
16. Know your weakest skills
Constantly practice and work on the weakest parts of your game. Get away from the habit of just pounding pucks into the net, or static slap-shots – the chance you’ll get those in a game are miniscule. Practice with a moving puck using a rebounder, when the puck is in close, or far away, or a quick shot – practice those skills that you’ll actually use in a game, strengthen them and become more confident.
The only way to ‘get good’ is to put the time in and build up experience and muscle memory, take lessons and learn good habits, work on your weak skills and build up confidence.